Call him Sham ap Soorap.
Go ahead. The references to Moby Dick in China Miéville’s cheerfully high-literary YA novel Railsea are as obvious as they are intentional. There’s the inexperienced young protagonist. There’s the vessel that’s seen better days. There’s the captain who can’t let go of the chase (even if it means losing a limb), and finally there’s the quarry — a great albino beast who seems to be leading the vessel and crew farther from shore and deeper into danger.
What there isn’t, however, is an ocean. It’s a remarkable act of world-building brio to attempt reworking Moby Dick within a largely waterless world but somehow Miéville pulls it off, and he does so by overlaying the vast, dry, ocean beds with thousands of miles of branching, intertwining, and even looping railroad track. In this bleak dystopian world whaling boats and cetaceans have long since given way to moletrains and rodentia.
Thickish and unsure of himself, Sham has signed on as a doctor’s assistant with the Medes, a vessel specializing in the procurement of big, fat moles. From the first hunting scene, Miéville does a credible job of translating high seas adventure into a more terrestrial environment: soil sprays up into the air, the train heaves, the animal breaches and then dives back down into the earth. When caught, it is flensed as thoroughly as any 19th century whale — skin is tanned, meat is packed and the smell, Sham indicates, is ghastly. But the Medes’ captain, Abacat Naphi, isn’t after just any old mole. Her fantastically twinkling metalwork arm is a cipher for the real arm she lost to Mocker-Jack, a gigantic, pasty, buck-toothed horror who haunts her dreams and beckons the Medes and its crew further out to sea.
It’s at this point in the book that Miéville begins to do some interesting things around loss and obsession. Sham discovers that while he has no aptitude for medicine, he might be a born salvager. When a fragment of bygone technology falls into his hands he’s obsessed with cracking its code and solving the riddle of personal history it contains. Through Sham’s research, Miéville gives us pieces of the world as it was before — the oceans were once full of water, the highlands, once inhabitable, are now toxic. Even the language has morphed — the word “and” has been replaced with the ampersand — its curving and intersecting lines reflecting a world where forward movement often means doubling back. Meanwhile, we see how Captain Naphi’s singleminded pursuit of Mocker-Jack has become her “Philosophy” — a sort of grand yarn unfurled by all the great captains in taverns and spread throughout the seaside towns like a cross between an urban legend and an ancient epic poem. There is the sense that not the monster itself, but the idea of the monster, has invaded her every conscious moment and stolen away any sense of contentment. The question becomes, would the captain have it any other way:
“All the trains we passed I asked for help & information, but the silence about Mocker-Jack was its own taunt. His absence was a looming presence. The lack of him filled me with him, so he burrowed not only through the earth & dirt of the railsea but through my own mind, night after night. I know more now about him than ever I did before. He stayed away & came closer in one magic movement.”
While ostensibly marketed as YA, Railsea is by no means an easy book. The language is rich and lyric, reveling in onomotopeia, rhythm and 19th century sentence construction. There is no teenage romance, nor is there anything approaching magic. At the same time it’s lovely in its mechanical, end-times, perpetual dusk. Reading it is an engrossing and oddly joyful experience. One gets the sense of an author at the height of his powers working through an improbable — but completely believable — literary exercise.